By Cooper Levey-Baker
This year, the buzz around Atomic is deafening. Make no mistake. Atomic III, which goes down this weekend, is nothing short of a genuine Event.
"People are waiting for Atomic," says Laura Daniel Gale, owner of the Rosemary District boutique everything but the girl. Her shop is one of a growing number of Sarasota retailers that carry merchandise by Atomic artisans. "Like, they're not going to buy anything until they can get to Atomic," Gale says. "They're going to fill their list with stuff they get there, and then go out and maybe land here after that, 'cause they, really, they know what to expect now, so they want to wait and get it all there."
Gale thinks that sense of anticipation is a testament to how event organizer Adrien Lucas has managed the fair. "It was almost one of the first things she ever told me about herself was this idea she had for this bazaar," Gale says, "and to see, three and a half years later, what it's sort of grown into is amazing."
The numbers tell the story. Year one, Lucas and fellow organizer Cemantha Crain hoped for 40 vendors and ended up with 50. Year two, Lucas and Crain received 150 applications for tables. This year? Lucas sifted through 277 proposals to select 70 participants. (Crain -- with two babies to care for -- is sitting out this go-'round.) The Atomic III fashion show (themed around Doris Day's "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" and featuring drag queen XuXu Fontana) even features a set designer. "It's a beautiful, organic thing the way it continues to grow," Lucas says.
Her excitement is such that even near-continuous bad news about the economy doesn't faze her. "I think that the Atomic audience, the shoppers, really are not the ones who use the layaway plan at Kmart," she says. "They're not the ones who really shoot their wad at Target. We like to shop, but with some heart and soul."
Atomic may still succeed, but that doesn't mean crafters aren't hurting. A few months ago, Lucas went from earning a side income of between $300 and $800 a month with her retro handbag line, Tuff Betty Bags, to seeing sales dry up. A handful of out-of-town vendors actually pulled out of Atomic because they couldn't justify the traveling expense.
Lucas took her tough times in stride, and made Tuff Betty more efficient. She's barely spent anything on new supplies, and is reworking bags she previously would have just pitched. "I retrofitted these, changed them, fixed them, so they are sellable," Lucas says. "I find that a lot of the crafters are doing the same thing."
That, um, crafty approach is just one way independent artisans may actually have a leg up on the chains. Lori Tomlinson, a jewelry maker who is participating in her third Atomic, thinks that stricter budgets mean buyers are reprioritizing. "For some people," she says, "when the economy gets like this, they start thinking, 'I need to concentrate my money locally.'"
Tomlinson -- who's been showcasing her wares at everything but the girl since it opened in 2005 -- hasn't seen a dip in her sales at all. Quite the contrary: "With the private sales, custom orders, I've been doing more this year."
Speculation about a second Great Depression hasn't discouraged new pro crafters either. Joanna Coblentz is bringing her vintage, one-of-a-kind purses to Atomic for the first time this weekend, even though she's been nursing her handmade hobby for six years. She learned how to quilt, then began putting together hip, punk-inspired bags for friends, and then eventually for friends of friends.
But it was only recently that Coblentz decided to do her damnedest to make crafting her life. Attending last year's Atomic provided motivation, but there were deeper reasons, too.
"I turned 30 and I wasn't in a good place in my life and I got a life coach and started really thinking about what I want to do and what makes me happy," Coblentz says, "and doing my purses and being creative in that way really made me happy."
Newly inspired, Coblentz connected with friend, jewelry designer and fellow Atomic exhibitor Alaina Farmer to put on a fashion show this past September at Steel Can Alley. Coblentz didn't sell any merchandise there, but at a second show a month later in Orlando, again with Farmer, her 20 bags were sold out before the event even started. She'll have 40 to 50 bags ready to go for Atomic.
Coblentz may still need to work a variety of small jobs to cover the bills, but she knows where she's headed. Two weeks ago, she moved into a one-bedroom place in Laurel Park. That one bedroom immediately became a workspace. "I'm like, 'Screw it. I'm sleeping in the living room, 'cause I have to have a studio.'"
That's the same commitment Lucas feels toward Atomic, the commitment to make alternative crafting grow as large as possible in Sarasota. She's already scheming about next year. She wants to expand the fair into a weekend-long festival, complete with a Saturday night rock concert. You might be skeptical, but each Atomic has been bigger than the last. Why should number four be any exception?